Mildred was the youngest and prettiest of the Fallow daughters, ‘the light of the household’ her mother told me in the telegram. She also said that young Mildred had been missing for five days and that the police had nothing to go on; she seemed to think only someone with a ‘keen city eye’ could join the dots. A telegram is a tired and flat document at the best of times but this one had all of its colour washed out. Still, it held some weight that couldn’t be ignored. Mildred was the only daughter left at home, and the mother only wanted to lose her to a decent marriage.
My car pulled up to the Fallow house on a bright Sunday morning. The driver asked if he should wait and I told him to enjoy the sunshine. He turned off the engine, took off his hat and put a newspaper over his face. Maybe he’s not one for frolics in the meadow. I got out and looked over the house, a decent country estate. Audrey Fallow told me that she and her husband had held their property for ten years and that nothing had ever made their stay uncomfortable, when I arrived I could see why. The building was fairly modern but fit its surroundings nicely. There were no outhouses or sheds, nothing to make it seem like a working countryside building; the place was a small manor, sunroom and all. With any luck, these people would have just enough money to perhaps be clear with me, any richer and it’s the wrong type of client.
As I approached the house there was no sound coming from anywhere, the only movement being a gentle breeze pulling silently at the long grass. I took up the cast-iron knocker and added to the groove its use had created in the wooden door. The noise it made felt dull, and I was sure it wouldn’t be heard inside. I stood and adjusted my tie, torn between smartening up and loosening the thing. The air was creeping up to summer temperature, breaking out of spring. The flies were gathering.
After five minutes or so, and a few more heavy swings of the knocker, the door opened half way. I looked up from my pocket watch to the washed-out face of Audrey Fallow peering through the gap.
‘Michael Horlock.’ I put out my hand. ‘Mrs Fallow?’ She didn’t take it.
‘Yes, yes, come in.’ She was a ghost, glassy-eyed and half-present. Her small mouth twitched into a smile and she welcomed me in with a movement of her hand. I opened the door fully and stepped in. She didn’t offer to take my hat or coat, just offered tea and disappeared into the house before I’d given a full response.
I took off my hat and walked into the parlour just off from the main hall. The house was quiet other than the tinkling of metal on china coming from the kitchen. The lady’s nerves must have been shot by this point. I looked over the room. It was bright but dusty, filled with tightly stuffed seating and hardwood furniture. The room ran the length of the house, opening onto a small patio beyond some French doors. The chair by the doors was the only one seemingly in use. On a small table next to it I could make out a teacup and a pill bottle. I hadn’t the time to get over and check the label.
I kept snooping to a minimum and was browsing a sideboard of trinkets when Mrs. Fallow entered. She was carrying a silver tray of tea paraphernalia that was shaking like there was a freight train passing. Tea splashed and china rattled but I managed to get hold of the thing before it could spill on the rug. She thanked me lifelessly and sat down at her seat by the doors. I followed slowly and slid the tray across the small table, edging the pill bottle along. A handwritten label simply read ‘Audrey’, but I was sure it went some way towards explaining Mrs. Fallow’s glassy eyes.
We sat in silence as the sun poured in, gently heating the place. I removed my coat and jacket and sipped the tea. I think the milk was perhaps sour.
‘So your daughter has been gone for five days?’
‘It seems so much longer than that.’
‘Have you had any more from the local police force?’
‘No, nothing.’ By now a parent is usually filled with malice towards everyone, especially the police. Her words were thin, expressionless.
I looked out of the French doors to the end of the garden. There was a small building half visible beyond the trees that I hadn’t seen from the front of the house.
‘Tell me what you can, Mrs. Fallow, and how you think I can help. If the trail is cold, I can only go over what the locals have and see if I can find any holes.’ Her trembling returned and she had to abandon her teacup.
‘Are you well Mrs. Fallow? Has your doctor prescribed anything for your nerves?’
‘Edward’s a doctor.’ She glanced at the bottle, lingered, and reached out to help herself to more medication.
‘Your husband Edward? Is he at home?’
‘Yes, he’s in his workshop.’ It seemed she meant to motion out beyond the garden, but barely moved at all. Her head and eyes and hand gave a simultaneous twitch but that was all she could manage. She was slipping away.
‘He knows it all. Millie loved him.’ On my way out I noticed a solitary framed picture of a young girl on the sideboard. Her face was bright and her eyes sparkled. They were probably green, like her mother’s used to be. The dust patterns on the surface of the sideboard told me that other pictures had recently been removed.
‘Was Mildred happy here?’
‘Yes, yes, she loved the trees.’ I remained with the photograph.
‘She’s twenty years old, how did she see her future? Any young men loitering at the front gate?’
I looked back at Audrey Fallow. She stared off at nothing in particular. I think she was trying to cry but nothing was coming out. I started to wonder why I was there. The sun shone brighter but I felt a chill. Mrs Fallow reached for her tea, knocking it over with a quivering hand. I didn’t rush to pick it up and she didn’t either. I looked out into the garden. I had to find the doctor.
The garden stretched out bright green, glowing in the rising midday heat. I noticed myself sweating and realised I probably had been for a while. This place had an air of sickness. There are times when I barely want to find the truth at all. I walked towards the line of trees that halted the garden, looking out for any movement in the workshop. I breached the trees surrounding the workshop and their shadow cooled me instantly. I felt the back of my shirt collar cold and wet on my neck. It forced out the chill built up in my spine. That woman’s eyes and the tinkling of metal on china.
The wood was old, older than the house. Maybe they found the place after moving in. The door opened with no resistance, but the air inside hit me like a wall. Old meat and faint perfume. The small room housed a desk, a chair, an old chest and a mattress on the floor. Either the doctor was fond of a nap or he’d been sleeping out here. I looked over the bed. There were crumpled sheets that were formerly white and a thin, sweat tarnished pillow. The sheet over the mattress was heavily stained; yellowing patches and spots of blood. I moved the sheets with my toe, exposing a crumpled pair of ladies underwear. I didn’t feel like they belonged to the doctor, nor to Mrs. Fallow.
I moved to the chest and touched the thick leather top. It wasn’t locked but my hand rested there for a few moments before I opened the lid. The contents were quite unspectacular considering the picture building in my head. There were assorted books, both medical and fictional, assorted tat and trinkets and some old men’s clothing. I’d given up the search when I found a bundle of photographs of young women, some nude, all vacant. Some men like to keep a little something hidden from their wives, that’s something I learned quickly in my job. I passed through the pictures until a face looked back at me that I felt I knew. The eyes looked dead into mine and my jaw clenched as I looked down on her exposed breasts. I slipped the picture into my pocket and threw rest back into the chest.
On the desk some writing paper lay spread across the surface, blank. An ink well was half full but didn’t have a corresponding pen. A few pill bottles littered the desk, all only holding a small amount of something or other. The pills all looked different but the bottles were all unmarked. I suppose a doctor knows his medication by sight. The sunlight on the desk flickered. I looked out of a dirty window to see something moving outside. I moved slowly back towards the door as to not make a sound. I crept around the building, fearing ambush. As the sunlight hit may face again, it was clear I wasn’t in any danger but it was also clear I wasn’t saving anyone at this house.
I looked up to see the body of a man hanging by his neck from a tree branch. No doubt this was the good doctor. His eyes were open and he was dressed with some dignity. The scene of death was the most morbid I’ve come across. He’d been up there for a day at least. Whatever got him up there, I was sure he deserved it. I felt the picture in my pocket and grew certain I didn’t want to know.
I walked back into the house I saw the teacup was still on the floor and had been joined by the pill bottle. Mrs Fallow didn’t acknowledge me and her breathing was shallow. I checked her pulse. She was cold but not dead. I moved over to a drinks cabinet and hoisted a decanter of amber liquid to my lips. I drank and felt the heat swell up from my stomach. I picked up the phone nearby and asked the operator for the police. She obliged and soon I was talking to the local sergeant.
‘I’m Michael Horlock, a detective from London. I was called up to the Fallow household to look at the case of their missing daughter. I’m here with Mrs. Fallow but she’s catatonic. Mr. Fallow is dead, suicide from the look of it. No sign of the daughter. You need to get some people out here. There’s a lot to digest. I expect you’ll find Mildred somewhere closer than you’ve been looking.’ I let it all out and breathed steadily. There was little on the other end for a few seconds. Then some slow words crept out.
‘We have Mildred here. We found her last night, dazed, wandering. She begged us not to take her home, not yet. We were waiting for a specialist from the city. The Fallows are quite a popular family in town.’
I looked over to Mrs. Fallow. In the twenty-four hours since she sent the telegram, she must’ve filled in some blanks.
‘Bring a decent doctor.’
I took the nude picture of Millie out of my pocket and placed it on the table by the phone. I left the house knowing that the police would put the pieces together pretty swiftly when they got to that place. I didn’t want any of the details, just a cold shower and maybe another drink.
This story originally appeared on Chase My Yellow Kite, an online photography newspaper.